Friday, February 19, 2016

10 Diverse Artists' Picture Book Biographies #nf10for10

Hooray, it's time for Nonfiction Picture Book 10 for 10! Get your library card out, because this is a great opportunity to find out about new nonfiction books. This year I have decided to share a Top 10 of favorite picture book biographies featuring diverse artists across a wide range of artistic pursuits. (Looking for more? Check out last year's Top 10 Favorite Folk Tales to Read Aloud.)

Now in its fourth year, Nonfiction Picture Book 10 for 10 (#nf10for10) is co-hosted by Mandy Robek of Enjoy and Embrace Learning, Julie Balen of Write at the Edge, and Cathy Mere of Reflect & Refine.  This year all activity is collected on the Picture Book 10 for 10 Community.

10 Incredible Picture Book Biographies of Diverse Artists

Writers and Poets

Issa, Japanese haiku poet

Cool Melons Turn to Frogs - the life and poems of Issa by Matthew Gollub (text and haiku translations) and illustrated by Kazuko G. Stone. This biography of the famous Japanese poet Issa (1763-1827)  links his personal story to some of the many haiku that he wrote and published. The book concludes with a detailed Author's Note about the story, the illustrations, additional discussion of a few of the haiku from the book, and a description of haiku in general. These are great resources for getting students to know more about the history of haiku and to study powerful examples of Japanese haiku. (Read more Picture Books about Haiku.)

Phillis Wheatley, first published African-American female poet

Phillis's Big Test (2008) by Catherine Clinton and illustrated by Sean Qualls. In 1773, young Phillis Wheatley became the first published African American poet. The frame of this story is the day that she was called to account for herself before a group of 18 white men, and during the course of her walk to the examination, she reflects on her upbringing and path towards poetry. Sean Qualls's illustrations convey great depths of emotion in this book, particularly in the subtle expressions of Phillis. This is a great book for introducing students to Phillis Wheatley and for beginning a conversation about slavery and educational opportunities. (Find out about more picture book biographies illustrated by Sean Qualls here.)

George Moses Horton, first African-American poet published in the south

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (2015) by Don Tate. This biographical picture book introduces readers to enslaved poet George Moses Horton, the first African-American to be published in the south. I found it especially interesting that the author's note opens with a comment about his initial reluctance to write and illustrate stories about slavery.

Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet

Pablo Neruda: poet of the people (2011) by Monica Brown and illustrated by Julie Paschkis. This biography of Pablo Neruda provides a look at his life and how they influenced his poems. The amazing illustrations complement and extend the text, as they are also overflowing with English and Spanish words. This book sparked some interesting conversations with my students, particularly around the idea that Pablo Neruda had to leave his home country of Chile but was not a criminal.


Melba Doretta Liston, trombone player

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone (2014) by Katheryn Russell-Brown and illustrated by Frank Morrison. Melba fell in love with the trombone at the age of 7, eventually joining a touring band and playing with and for many other famous jazz musicians. This picture book does a great job of laying out her childhood and inspirations with engaging illustrations.

Trombone Shorty, trombone player

Trombone Shorty (2015) by Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and illustrated by Bryan Collier [a Coretta Scott King Book Award winner and a Caldecott Honor book]. This exuberant autobiography celebrates the childhood of New Orleans musical prodigy Troy Andrews (nicknamed Trombone Shorty for his small size compared to his chosen instrument). This is a great book for introducing kids to this modern musical wonder.


Josephine Baker, actress/singer

Josephine: the dazzling life of Josephine Baker (2014) by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson [a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Book Award winner and a Siebert Honor book]. Perhaps an unusual choice for a children's picture book, this book celebrates the life and advocacy of Josephine Baker, and the book does a good job of presenting the context of the racism and civil rights challenges she faced during her career. Extensively researched with detailed backmatter.

Misty Copeland, ballerina

Firebird: ballerina Misty Copeland shows a young girl how to dance like the firebird by Misty Copeland and illustrated by Christopher Myers. This wonderful and inspiring picture book should be beloved by dancers and ballerinas worldwide. Misty Copeland shares her meditation on power and promise, as she highlights the trail she blazed for dancers of color. I think reading the Author's Note first (or briefly meditating on the extensive subtitle) might be helpful to establish context for the story, especially for younger readers. Christopher Myers adds incredible layers of meaning with his colorful and dynamic mixed media illustrations. [This one is more of a story than a true autobiography, but I think it's a worthwhile read.]

Visual Artists

Vasya (Wassily) Kandinsky, abstract painter

The Noisy Paint Box: the colors and sounds of Kandinsky's abstract art (2014) by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Mary Grandpré [a Caldecott Honor book]. This picture book biography details the childhood of Russian painter Kandinsky, and the connections between his synesthesia (ability to "see" music as colors) and his art. The significant backmatter includes some of his illustrations as well as an author's note and additional resources.

Gordon Parks, photographer

Gordon Parks: how the photographer captured black and white America (2015) by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Jamey Christoph. I am embarrassed to admit that I had not heard of Gordon Parks before learning about this biography. He was a powerful photographer of Jim Crow and Civil Rights era America, and the first black photographer at Life magazine. This picture book biography details his childhood as well as his career and its impact. Just last week, Gordon Parks won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Children's Literary Work! Read more about Parks and see links to his archives over at my photography blog.

Runners Up

There were many great books to choose from, which is part of the fun of this event! One of the big questions I kept asking myself was what exactly constitutes a nonfiction picture book biography, and Alyson's timely post over at Kid Lit Frenzy (Fiction in Children's Nonfiction) helped solidify some of my thoughts on the topic. There are many great books out there that fall more into a "historical fiction" or perhaps "informational fiction" category - with more extrapolation or invented dialogue than a truly nonfiction biography. I wanted to highlight two of those books below too.

Drum Dream Girl: how one girl's courage changed music (2015) by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Rafael López. This powerful true story was inspired by the early life of Chinese-African-Cuban Millo Castro Zaldarriaga. Millo broke the Cuban taboo against female drummers and performed with her sisters as part of Cuba's first "all-girl dance band" in the 1930s. This story inspired some powerful conversations with my students about rules, especially ones about things boys or girls are told they cannot do.

Viva Frida (2014) by Yuyi Morales. My local library classifies this book as nonfiction, but it is written as if Frida Kahlo herself were speaking. In orders for kids to make sense of this book-told-as-diorama, it really helps to first provide them with some background on Frida, her actual look, and her artwork. This book is a favorite of our librarian and is growing on me.

Need more #nf10for10? Check out the rest of the posts, collected at the Picture Book 10 for 10 Community or my posts from previous years: Top 10 Favorite Folk Tales to Read Aloud and, for fiction, Top 10 Picture Books Featuring Diverse Characters and Top 10 Picture Book Must-Have Read Alouds. Or, looking for even more diverse, inclusive, and multicultural books? Check out my growing aggregated list here: Multicultural Book Lists.


  1. This is such an incredible list -- worthy of being on classroom bookshelves!

  2. What a beautiful looking list! I've read about half but the rest are now on my to read list :-)

  3. I love that Phyllis Wheatley has a picture book! She is awesome! I get so annoyed at the so called "first lists" that leave her out. Her contribution was and is important.

    A great list of books. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Beautiful books, Katie. Thanks for your ideas about art bios. I know them all but Cool Melons-Turn to Frogs. Thanks for that one, I'm sure I'll like it, love writing haiku, and trying to improve.

  5. GREAT LIST! I don't have a couple of these and have just ordered them from my library. Thanks.

  6. I was thinking about Aly's post today too. I still haven't found A Noisy Paintbox and I know I will love it!

  7. I'm keen to check out Cool Melons. Thanks for the recommendation.
    Apples with Many Seeds

    1. Thanks, Tammy! I really enjoy using it when I teach kids about haiku.

  8. A terrific list! Several of these have been nominated for CYBILS nonfiction books, so I've read those, but there are lots here that I haven't read. I'll be looking for Phyllis Wheatley and Gordon Parks first (I actually learned about him in a graduate class on memoir- he has a terrific adult memoir, wish I could remember the name of it).

    1. Cool, thanks Carol. I will be on the lookout for the memoir!

  9. Such wonderful books! We've read many of these but have new ones to add to our list.

  10. I can't wait to get the Pablo Neruda book. I didn't even know it existed! Thank you thank you thank you for this list!

    1. You're welcome, KT! The Pablo Neruda book is a work of art in itself.

  11. Hi, congrats. You are the most clicked on Literacy Musing Mondays this week. We will feature you next week. The linkup goes live at 6 p.m. Sunday. I hope you will keep linking up with us. :)

    1. Oh wow, exciting! Thanks so much for letting me know, and I look forward to continuing to link up with you.

  12. So excited to read Cool Melons, especially since I just finished the picture book biography about another Japanese poet, Are You an Echo?


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